Changing Tastes study: Americans showing no strong preference for wild over farmed seafood

American consumers continue to have no strong established preference for farmed or wild fish, according to a new study by Changing Tastes. That lack of preference, the report found, extends to the broader seafood category as well.

A majority of U.S. consumers now consider both wild-capture and aquaculture to be acceptable ways of producing fish and seafood, Changing Tastes discovered, but only 17 percent said they ate fish because they considered it to be a better choice for the environment compared to other protein options. Eighty percent of consumers are concerned about overfishing, the report noted, while 67 percent are concerned about environmental impacts of aquaculture.

The lack of preference for farmed or wild seafood upends the conventional wisdom that U.S. consumers prefer wild options and shows a continued erosion in preference first identified by Changing Tastes in a prior study two years ago.

When preferences for farmed and wild seafood are broken down by age, there is significant variation, Changing Tastes said. Boomers, the oldest consumer group (now 55 or older) have the strongest preference for wild fish and seafood. Meanwhile, younger generations – including with Millennials and Generation Z – have less pronounced preferences and are generally accepting of all types of fish and seafood production.

“Consumer preference for wild fish and seafood used to be true and we see remnants of it in the preference among older consumers. But recognizing that consumer preference for farmed and wild seafood has eroded is important for the seafood industry and also the food industry overall,” Changing Tastes Founder Arlin Wasserman said. “Our customers are now recognizing and accepting changes in seafood production as it evolves from hunting and foraging to also rely on small- and large-scale farming. These are the same changes that happened in land-based livestock production over decades, and it’s happening much faster for fish and seafood.”

Stockbridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A.-based Changing Tastes is a consultancy with a focus on sustainability, public health, information technology, demographics, and the changing role of the culinary professional. Wasserman said the study's findings represent a shift by the consumer to trusting others to do the work of sourcing sustainable seafood for them.

“Consumers are signaling that they are delegating to the food industry the relatively complex choices about what kinds of fish and seafood offer them, where it comes from and how it’s produced,” Wasserman said. “It’s the same role the foodservice industry and some grocery retailers have taken on and it’s another way to create value for customers. Attending to concerns such as overfishing and other sustainability issues is also part of that new bargain.”

The study also looked at consumer preferences around cellular proteins, finding that Americans are also willing to switch from traditional seafood to cellular seafood. Approximately one in five U.S. consumers who are presently seafood eaters are willing to switch entirely from wild to cellular, although many remain unfamiliar with cellular aquaculture and have concerns about it, according to the research.

Regarding salmon and shrimp, the study found that more than 40 percent of restaurants in the U.S. now have salmon on their menu, and nearly two-thirds currently offer shrimp. Nearly a third of these restaurants anticipate purchasing more salmon and shrimp in the near future, the report said.

“With aquaculture supplying a significant share of shrimp and salmon to the U.S. market, the erosion of consumer preference gives greater flexibility in making responsible purchasing decisions, as does openness to newer production technologies,” Wasserman said.

Jada Tullos Anderson, a seafood sustainability consultant with Changing Tastes, said the findings give restaurants more flexibility in ther menuing options.

“Many consumers want to have healthy options on the menu when they go out, and this frees up restaurants to make the best choice they can on the attributes that matter most, like taste, quality, sustainability, and price,” Tullos Anderson said.

The full study will be available to the public from Changing Tastes in April 2020.

Photo courtesy of Rido/Shutterstock


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